Sound ideas: Deb Adams-Welles’ “Wall of Sound (Remix)” at Anderson Ranch | AspenTimes.com

Sound ideas: Deb Adams-Welles’ “Wall of Sound (Remix)” at Anderson Ranch

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Every so often, a new twist on the concept of "the wall of sound" emerges, and each iteration seems to signal some raising of the technological bar.

The first, and probably least known wall of sound concept came in the late 1950s, from the fertile mind of Raymond Scott. A pianist and composer, Scott also became a pioneer in the field of electronic music when he invented the electronium, an electro-mechanical synthesizer whose knobs and buttons and panels occupied a 30-foot-wide wall. Though Scott is little known — mostly because he was extremely secretive about his inventions, fearing his designs would be copied — the electronic sounds he made were familiar from TV commercials, products that featured chimes and bells, and Bugs Bunny cartoons.

A few years later came Phil Spector. Seeking to work around the narrow-range sonic limitations of AM radio, the record producer came up with a technique that had multiple musicians playing the same part in unison. The result was a dense, potent wall of sound that, to many, had its ultimate expression in the Ike & Tina Turner single "River Deep, Mountain High." (On the other end of the spectrum was Spector's contribution to the Beatles' final studio album, "Let It Be," from 1970. Many listeners criticized the album's over-produced quality, including the orchestral parts on the song "The Long and Winding Road." In 2003, Paul McCartney oversaw "Let It Be … Naked," a new version of the album that stripped away much of what Spector had added.)

In 1974, the Grateful Dead unveiled their own Wall of Sound — a gargantuan concert sound system that was designed to be loud and distortion-free, while giving the musicians full control over each element of the music. The system proved too massive to be practical — because it took so long to set up, two separate scaffolding systems were required, with a crew putting up one set ahead of time in the next venue on the itinerary — and was retired within the year.

The latest Wall of Sound reflects that history, and also contemplates what has happened to the technology of music since the Dead tore down its wall. "The Wall of Sound (Remix)," a multi-media installation by valley artist Deb Adams-Welles — with a sound component by her husband, Guy Welles — throws the digital age into the mix, touching on ideas of sampling, the role of computers in music, and what our music-making and music–listening devices look like. The installation, currently showing at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, opens with a reception on Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 5 p.m.

Like Scott and the Grateful Dead, Adams-Welles has erected a literal wall. "The Wall of Sound (Remix)" is 21-by-25 feet and comprises 50 separate panels. To experience it fully, a viewer has to look at it from both ground level and then from a loft up a flight of stairs. Adams-Welles, who has a degree in industrial arts from Ohio State but had never previously done a large-scale installation, worked on the piece for two and a half months. Guy Welles, a member of the rock band Spore Favore, contributed the sound component, a 10-minute loop that twists and glides through Scott, Spector, and a taste of the Grateful Dead's concert from March, 1974, that marked the debut of their wall of sound.

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"The Wall of Sound (Remix)" works as a compression of time. The materials are mainly old-fashioned wood and paint; there are a handful of exposed car-stereo speakers embedded in the construction. The materials give a looking-backwards feel to the piece. That, plus the size of the structure, allows the installation to serve as a reminder of days gone by when music-listening devices could be huge, part of a room's furnishings, and not something that could be stuffed in a pocket or hidden in a computer file. The gallery windows were left uncovered, so from the upstairs a viewer can see outside — snow, trees, mountains, sky — a reminder that there is yet another world beyond digital files, guitars and art.

But Adams-Welles, who has taken many classes in painting and sculpture at Anderson Ranch over her 15 years in the Roaring Fork Valley, and began taking installation workshops more recently, didn't care to make a piece that was merely a nostalgic look at the various walls of sound from decades ago. At her Missouri Heights home, she typically works in close quarters with her husband as he toils away on his music projects.

"I was thinking, how can I make this modern, today?" she said. "Because I watch Guy in his studio, making music, and it's all on the computer, mixing things, the software programs Ableton Live and Pro Tools."

"Wall of Sound (Remix)," then, includes Plexiglas, along with painted images of the screen shots from up-to-date music software. The overall effect, with the background of spliced-together bits of music, gives the sense of a remix — the inventive combination of different elements.

"Piecing it together, all these separate parts, is what DJs are doing now," Adams-Welles said.

The installation also brings up the question: Exactly what are DJs doing now? Adams-Welles and Welles bring up Derek Smith, the Colorado-based electronic music artist who performs under the name Pretty Lights. Smith once had live musicians recording electronic sounds to vinyl. He then used that sound library to make his electronic mixes, crossing digital and analog sounds in a way that makes it hard to see the distinctions between the two.

"I think it comments on the inevitability of the integration of digital into everything, into our analog lives and real lives," Welles said. "Vinyl has had this resurgence, but even a lot of the new records by new bands, pressed on vinyl, are done a lot digitally. Digital and vinyl are becoming, in some sense, inseparable."

Welles-Adams says she isn't criticizing the move to the digital age. "I'm pro-progress," she said. And Welles points out that even analog music isn't exactly music, or sound, itself.

"Analog isn't real either. It's not sound," he said. "It's an electronic analog to sound. It's still representing something through something else. Sound is sound waves traveling through air. Analog isn't doing that; it's still an electronic impulse. What's real and what's not anymore? How do you define it?"

"The Wall of Sound (Remix)" does make the point that at least one thing has gotten lost in the progression of music. The mechanisms have become miniaturized to the point of being hidden — on computer files, in bytes, pixels. There are DJs who perform with a laptop — or an iPod — and can summon more sounds than a five-piece rock band. An artist can create an album sitting at his computer, rather than in a studio full of instruments and soundboards.

"The Wall of Sound (Remix)" enlarges things, so that viewers have some visual reminder of what has been rendered invisible and mysterious.

"In digital, there's all this information that's so compacted," Adams-Welles said. "We take it for granted how things work. We don't even care anymore. Microprocessors — I don't think we care to know how they work.

"I like the idea of getting to look at them on a more legible scale. We look at schematics, these electrical diagrams, and it's a foreign language. Blow it up and it's still foreign, but you can make some sense of it."

Deb Adams-Welles: “The Wall of sound (remix)”

Opening reception: Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 5 p.m.

Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Snowmass Village

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